May is Pelvic Pain Awareness Month. I’m curious, do you feel nervous or anxious talking about pain issues “down there”? Let’s be honest, this is an uncomfortable topic for many people. It’s an embarrassing topic, it's a shameful topic. There's a lot of emotional baggage placed on it. As a result, a lot of women (and men as well) suffer in silence.
I want to share a story about somebody, let's call her Leah. This is a story of somebody who had pelvic pain, who did not know what to do and did not have any options given to her.
WAIT-- let’s back up. I need to share something first. True Confessions.
Leah is my middle name. This is MY personal story.
I first started writing about Leah, then thought no, I need to be open, honest and transparent. This is MY story. I don’t share this much, in fact this is the first time ever I’ve written about it. But it needs to be told. So tell it I shall.
Leah -- I -- started having problems with pelvic pain as a teenager. Ever since I could remember, I had terribly painful periods. I would miss a day of school every month because of this. Often it hurt so badly that I would double over and felt like I would throw up. Back then, there were not a lot of answers. It was just assumed to be normal, and that I was one of the unfortunate ones to suffer from painful periods. End of story.
What I didn't know is that there was probably a nutritional component involved. I may have had really tight abdominal and hip muscles that were never addressed. There may have been some hormonal imbalances that could have been addressed. Truth is, painful periods are not normal. However, I did not know this. Neither did my doctor.
I vividly remember one visit to a gynecologist when I was 16 years old. My period pain had gotten so bad that I was desperate for a solution. I still shudder at the answer the doctor gave me: He told me—in front of my mother—that if I got pregnant, that should fix my pain problem. What the heck??!! HOW do you respond to something like that? That was this doctor’s medical advice! I couldn’t believe it. He did come up with a second option -- birth control pills. I really didn’t want to go that route as a young teenager.
So I dealt with this for years and years. In college and when I was working I would miss a day of classes or work a month. One day every month because of this! All the time thinking that this is normal.
A few more years passed, and I got married. Every bride probably dreams of a perfectly beautiful and satisfying wedding night. What did I discover instead? For me, what was supposed to be very pleasurable was instead very painful. To put it bluntly, sex hurt. Badly. I was not prepared for this. I was horrified.
And it didn't go away or get better on its own. It went on and on. Can you imagine how I felt, thinking, I'm not a good wife, what's wrong with me, that this is happening? Can you imagine how this affected my husband, knowing that every time we made love it was hurting me? Thinking that he was hurting me?
This struggle is very real, and it can be a huge strain on a relationship. It can erode your communication with your spouse or partner. It can shatter your feelings of self-worth and adequacy. Couples get divorced over this.
After putting up with this for too long, I finally got the courage to seek medical help and talk with a few trusted friends about it. What advice was I was given? No joke, this is all real….
1) "Oh, have a glass of wine. You just need to relax".
How many of you heard that? Let me just say it doesn't work. If you had tight hamstrings, would anyone tell you to have a glass of wine as a remedy? Of course not! That sounds ridiculous. Yet women often get this advice when they have painful sex. They don’t know (and I didn’t know at the time) that the pain could be caused by tight pelvic floor muscles. If your pelvic floor muscles are too tight, a glass of wine is not going to fix that! But that's what I was told—on several occasions.
2) "Well maybe you need to emotionally connect with your husband more, you have an emotional connection problem", (i.e. "It's probably all in your head").
Nobody took the time or effort to explain the relationship between emotional stress and physical pain, or even to check my pelvic floor to see if it was part of the problem. Even worse, being told that the problem exists because of emotional deficits I might have (i.e. it’s my fault) just made me feel worse about myself.
3) "Maybe if you get pregnant, and have a baby, it will get better". (Seriously??)
Yes, I actually got told this. You can’t make this stuff up! Maybe that’s true, maybe not. But it’s not very helpful.
4) ” ……........”
A blank stare or uncomfortable look that inferred, "um, I really don't know what to do about this". So nothing was said. No conversation was started.
I was left to deal with it, just live with it, put up with it.
What I didn't know is how many other women have this same problem.
And how many men also deal with pelvic pain.
I wonder how many people reading this story can relate to it personally? How many are struggling with very private pain issues and don’t know where to turn? If that is you, keep reading, it gets better!
Let's fast forward a few years. I had two children. I was one of the lucky ones, my pain issues actually did get better after childbirth. For the vast majority of women that is not the case; they suffer with this problem of pelvic pain most of their lives.
It was only 7 years ago that I learned about pelvic floor physical therapy. What’s so ironic about that is that I was a physical therapist myself! I’ll be honest, when I heard about this, part of me was angry. WHY didn't anybody tell me about this, so many years ago? I might have been able to avoid all this pain, shame, embarrassment, keeping it all to myself. I might have been able to enjoy my marriage more in those early years.
Yeah, I was angry. Instead of staying angry, however, I decided to turn that around. There’s still so much work to be done, we have a long way to go in the area of pelvic health awareness in this country. I want to help others find hope and treatment options that I never had. I want to equip both men and women with the knowledge to help their friends, family, spouses find that hope and relief.
Many women and men are suffering now with pain issues “down there”. And who do they talk to-- who can they talk to? You’ve read about my less-than-successful attempts to find help. That was over 20 years ago. This still happens today, every day. Women are led to believe that this is “normal”, it’s a normal part of aging or it’s normal after childbirth. They’re often given unhelpful or even harmful advice. Men who have pelvic pain are usually shuffled from doctor to doctor, given similar “advice” that women get, or worse yet, treated with suspicion if they even bring up the issue.
This was not easy for me to write. It was even harder to post it publicly on this blog. My personality is not an “open book” and I just don’t feel at ease sharing the private details of my life with everyone. However, I thought, if I (a pelvic floor PT) feel uncomfortable sharing this, how much harder would it be for others? If I'm not willing to be more open about my pelvic pain story, how can I expect my clients to share their stories?
It all starts with taking that first step. For me, publishing this story is a “first step” in building awareness and advocating for better solutions to pelvic pain.
If you're a best friend of somebody who's brought up this subject, how comfortable do you really feel addressing it? Do you really want to go there with them? If you knew that there was someone who could help them with that, would you want to tell them that, and offer them the help that maybe you couldn't provide? I hope that this story has helped you feel a little more comfortable talking about this now. Perhaps this is a first step for you.
Help me spread the word about this; there's still so much educating and encouraging to do. Help me pass on this message: Yes, there is help available. Yes, pelvic pain, pain with sex, is treatable! No, you're not too far-gone or broken to get better. And NO, you don't have to “just live with it”.
We help active men and women get control over leakage, pain, or other problems “down there”, even if other treatments haven't worked. Even if they've been told nothing can be done. Even if it seems hopeless.
Laura McKaig PT
Specialist Physical Therapist